Space Invaders! Preparing Design for the Internet of Things and Buildings

by Erin Rae Hoffer
- Aug 20 2015 - 4 min read

Look out! The Internet of Things is invading architecture, the physical space of everyday life.

Consider the bevy of building types, and reimagine them, Internet-enlivened:

A museum responds to your background and interests by highlighting key exhibits and presenting exhibit labels to suit your historical knowledge and interests as you pass by. And each exhibit connects you to other patrons with similar reactions, spawning a network of virtual relationships.

internet_of_things_and_buildings_designA nightclub reconfigures to accommodate your arrival. It points you to a room filled with graduates of your college or people who follow the same sport, when the club’s “operating system” assesses the profiles of all visitors and finds commonalities. As you enter, the walls of the room have already shifted to reflect your group with publicly posted images of your time together, piped-in music from your collective playlists, and a rolling dialogue of comments.

When you require medical attention, surgical rooms maintain awareness of the presence and movement of particles linked to infectious diseases so that equipment and lighting can be positioned for optimum airflow protection.

This isn’t just the stuff of science fiction; these scenarios are closer to reality than you think. Today’s smartphone-connected systems for security, comfort, and communication are morphing. Soon, they will become self-aware, imbued with new meaning, and will be part of your everyday physical reality with the Internet of Things and buildings.

It’s Alive!

What will this mean for design as society enters an age of dissolving boundaries between physical and digital worlds, where space itself can shape-shift through interaction? Design must rocket toward next-generation requirements for the built environment, and designers must rethink the process itself to get there ahead of time.

Courtesy Erin Rae Hoffer

Architect Christopher Alexander lays out the idea of pattern and usage for “pattern language”—a description of great design—as a way of building, which he calls “timeless.” “Towns and buildings will not be able to come alive, unless they are made by all the people in society, and unless these people share a common pattern language, within which to make these buildings, and unless this common pattern language is alive itself,” he writes in The Timeless Way of Building.

Coming “alive” has never been more timely—or more literal. It is time to expand pattern language to anticipate the pervasion of Internet-enabled (or Internet-connected) environments. Each new pattern should be a use case for connected environments, a formal response to the design problem of linking digital with spatial environments in a way that augments experience.

Ready to bring your next building alive? Prepare to become the “hybrid designer.”

Introducing the Hybrid Designer

Architectural history teaches that environments have tremendous power over the actions of communities and groups. The Ten Books on Architecture from ancient Rome illustrated the principles of design and construction and emphasized the three “laws” placing architecture above mere building, namely that a work of architecture must possess the qualities of Firmness, Commodity, and Delight. These three laws clarified that a work of good design must be physically and structurally sound, must support the functional and practical needs of its occupants, and must be aesthetically pleasing to the viewer.

internet_of_things_and_buildings_architectureIn comparison, HP UX Lead Jim Nieters’s blog post on Interaction Design lists the goals of an interaction model as being Discoverability, Learnability, Efficiency, Productivity, Responsiveness, and (not coincidentally) Delight. Although these two thinkers lived in different times, these somewhat analogous sets of laws underscore the relevance of aligning user-experience design with the design of interaction and experience in physical space.

In the future of Internet-enabled space, the designer must incorporate both sets of skills—be both architect and interaction designer—to create meaningful places that connect people through intelligent things. This mix of methods and sensibilities can be termed “hybrid design practice.” The hybrid designer will be responsible for not only “concretization” of the building as object, as described by Christian Norberg-Schulz, but also for orchestrating a new context—a dynamic system of elements that flexes and adapts to support human needs for environmental, behavioral, and social settings.

The New Questions to Ask

New questions need to be answered. For instance, the mode of interaction—or way anyone engages with the architecture—requires a new evaluation:

  • Awareness—What can we measure; what can we learn?
  • Analysis—What useful knowledge can we glean from data?
  • Communication—How should insight be reported?
  • Action—What action can a system initiate based on insight?
  • Feedback—How can we assess impact and learn from action?
  • Recollection—How can we retain knowledge for later access?

And then there will be new inquiries and imperatives to determine the objectives for understanding and transforming the world through physical or human systems:

  • Environmental—How can we optimize and minimize use of resources to produce ideal conditions by combining data gathered through monitoring with external data sources?
  • Behavioral—Can we incent behaviors? Can we monitor human interactions and assess and modify conditions based on knowledge of preferences?
  • Social—How can we produce network-based discussion and action through social connection? Can we modify settings to be conducive to human interaction? How can our spaces support collective action?

The hybrid designer will answer these questions and more, going beyond problem solving and practicality to write the manifesto and express what it means to live in an interconnected society through architecture; to articulate how buildings have become gateways to communities of connection and alternative experience; or to personify each building as a character in the story of your life, responding to you, shaping your environment to suit your needs, analyzing situations, providing feedback, and recalling past experience.

In fact, by inventing new patterns and practices, designers have a responsibility to prepare everyone for the new interconnected world, to “look out” and help society take advantage of the future space invasion.

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